The Afterthought of Equity

Updated Mar 30, 2021

Dismantling racism is going to take far more than branding the word, “equity”. Equity demands work that will not be solved by simply adding the word to your strategic plan or initiatives so you can check mark it off your lists. So, let’s take an honest look at how we can really begin to do this work, in earnest.

Calls for equity culminated amidst the backdrop of last summer’s horrific on and off camera killings of black people overlaid by COVID’s illumination of widening disparities. This has rightly amplified cries for not just equity but for justice. Yet there is a discomforting disingenuity that I feel as a Black woman, a nurse scientist and scholar, when repeatedly the responses to predictable inequity occur after the fact. Instead, they are reactive attempts at equity that are fundamentally flawed. Using the now widely and wildly popular ‘equity brand’ is counter-intuitive to acting on equity simply by its passive implementation.

Dr. Camille BurnettDr. Camille Burnett

It is obvious to those of us who live, breath and experience inequity daily, that equity remains an afterthought. A primary example of this is a January 2021 Kaiser Health News report citing lower COVID-19 vaccination rates for Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and People of Color than Whites—by as much as 50 percent or more in some regions. Further, a recent U.S. National Academy of Sciences report estimated that COVID-19 induced reductions in the life expectancy of Black and Latino populations are three to four times less than that of Whites—a trend which is expected to persist and undo the last 10 years of progress*. Both issues are seeded in the structural manifestations of racism, inequity, and injustice.

What’s worst is that these gaps in existing and new inequities within these specific populations have been scientifically documented and well known for decades.

Therefore, inequity when left unaddressed, will continue to surface, and resurface. So while we purport to care about equity, and are deeply incensed by the unjust consequences of its absence, we still refuse to co-create structures, systems and policies where equity is embedded from the beginning and not tacked on after. We cannot retrofit equity into inequitable structures.

This is not a criticism of the well-intended and much needed equity efforts; it is a critique of the ineptitude of the broader structural processes to mitigate and ameliorate equity and create justice.

Focusing on structures as the starting point for solutions is key because much of these disparities and inequities are deeply embedded in root causes housed within and often perpetuated by structures, their systems, policies and practices. Most importantly, there is a predictability in the anticipation of inequity that should force us to proactively prepare to address it before it manifests instead of waiting until it does. Otherwise, we will once again begin the same cycle of trying to scramble to equalize the issue and create equity in the moment and worst after the inequity has already occurred.

What must happen is moving equity as an afterthought to equity as the default, so that it’s a proactive solution instead of a reactive one. Doing ‘something’ does not mean we are doing all that we can do. Inequity must be treated with urgency and intensity like the existential threat that is it.

Beyond using an ‘equity lens’ in a siloed patchwork approach, we must co-create and animate equity everywhere. Our structures have to be re- mantled toward structural justice**. Structural spaces are where inequity, injustice and racism have been insidiously internalized. It is where community trust has been historically broken and detrimentally harmed in communities of color.

Therefore, we need designated equity centers, offices, and departments of equity, created nationwide led by equity and community experts, to examine and lead these efforts up close. Mobilizing true equity is a long-haul, broad sweeping strategic effort. It’s not a report, a committee, nor a taskforce. Funded leadership and offices at the state, local and national level with an endorsed equity mandate that is empowered to coordinate efforts to actively address and cultivate equity across all our sectors, systems, policies, and procedures is desperately needed.

Without this radically reimagined approach to redressing inequity, equity will remain elusive as a patchwork brand symbolically pulled out as needed with no real process or concerted strategy. Equity will continue as an afterthought until we intentionally incubate, embed, and implement innovative equitable solutions at multiple levels.

Redressing inequity once it occurs is still important, however so too is preventing inequity from occurring in the first place. Both are necessary acts of justice making. The work is just starting.

Dr. Camille Burnett is an endowed professor at the University of Kentucky Center for Research on Violence Against Women and is an  associate professor in the College of Nursing at  University of Kentucky and Strategic Advisor to the Office of the Provost for Community Engagement and Academic Partnerships.

*(Andrasfay and Goldman, 2021)

**(Burnett, Swanberg, Hudson & Schminkey, 2018)